The Clam: It Fits Just Right
Sometimes a restaurant fits just right. Comfortable in its own space, its location, its moment in time. Tucked into the corner of Hudson and Leroy streets in the West Village, The Clam is such a place. Co-owned by the pros behind the nearby Little Owl and Market Table, Joey Campanaro and Mike Price have brought their considerable skill set to bear on their new seafood-centric establishment.
The interior exudes a built-in warmth that belies its newness, conveyed by exposed brick walls, a funky tile ceiling, subdued lighting and fresh flowers on each of the 16 white cloth-covered tables. The eater-friendly, six-seat bar faces the exposed kitchen in back. The crowd is handsome, its buzz punctuated by a likable playlist featuring mid-70's era soft rock one evening, represented by 10cc performing "The Things We Do for Love."
The menu is seasonal (check), local (check), and all made in-house (check), the price of entry for a competitive, contemporary eatery. The point of difference here is, well, the things they do for love. That means a majority of intensely fresh seafood, and also includes charming service plus a superbly selected wine list. Among many reasonably priced choices, one could discover Occhipinti SP-68, an unfiltered, organic blend from Sicilian superstar Arianna Occhipinti.
Depending on your predilection for decadence or discipline, the menu allows for the choice between the rich and the pristine. Ideal for that cold winter's night, you'll be tempted by specialties like clam chowder, clam fried rice, Cherrystone "Stuffies," and a big 'ol fried belly clam sandwich. Should you opt instead for the unadorned, you'll be treated to an array of seafoods as fresh as you can find in New York. East coast oysters are sublime with a dab of vinegar-based mignonette. For those who haven't eaten scallops raw, scallop crudo (pictured) is a revelation. Sliced and topped with pear, toasted hazelnuts, chives and lime, so blissful a bite is this that it would handily win gold stars on TV's The Taste. And the chilled King Crab, as sweet and clean as anything you can eat from the sea, is served two ways: in chunks with Dijon sauce on the side, as well as with its "shoulder meat" picked from the shell and tossed with that same mustard sauce revved up by a hit of vinegar, chives and hot sauce.
When you start with raw ingredients this good, the trick is to not to get in their way. Rather, it is to amplify or highlight their natural flavors without obscuring or overwhelming them. Chef Price's unpretentious cooking demonstrates deft touch and technique. Block Island swordfish was exemplary, perfectly prepared and served atop kale with lemon aioli. Lush jumbo lump crabcakes come with a mound of crunchy cabbage slaw. Eschewing the typical, the "gravy" in spaghetti & clams is a vibrant tomato sauce, surrounded by whole clams and topped off by a salad. Plump steamed Littlenecks were perfection, in briny broth that will vanish whether sopped up by the toasty bread or slurped from a soup spoon. Among other sides, there are chili roasted Brussels sprouts (check), yet in this case they're adorned with the two best ingredients one can add, smoky bacon bits and peanuts. And you can tell your landlubber friends not to fret, there's roasted chicken on the menu and a nightly meat special offered as well.
I don't know why people open restaurants. For a certain type, it must stem from an eagerness to please. When that's paired with excellent food and an inviting presence, it fits just right. Check.
Apps $8-15 | Specialties $9-24 | Entrees $22-31| Sides $8 | Dessert $9 | Cocktails $12-15